PAGOSA SPRINGS – “I had no idea they did all this planning.”
It’s a comment Fred Ellis, assistant fire management officer with the Pagosa Ranger District in the San Juan National Forest, hears consistently after community presentations for people living near a prescribed burn.
Before the first crews are in the field to light a prescribed burn, up to three years of planning may have gone into the effort to maximize the safety of the operation, the effectiveness in improving forest health and the effectiveness of lowering the risk of a catastrophic wildfire.
In fact, before any prescribed burn even reaches initial planning stages, the general practice of using prescription burning to cut down on forest understory must be approved of in broader earlier studies required for each individual national forest.
The first is a land/resource management plan. This overarching document must permit the use of prescribed burns as appropriate for the ecology in each individual national forest.
Secondly, prescribed burns follow a broader fire management plan in place for each national forest, and burns must comply with the National Environmental Policy Act. Any individual burn may require an environmental impact statement or an environmental assessment.
Those requirements mean a lot of work is done in the San Juan National Forest a year or more before the typical prescribed burning season – April and early May and again in September.
In the typical year, about 10,000 acres in the San Juan National Forest are treated by prescribed fire, which can include everything from burning slash piles to a 1,000-acre prescribed burn.
Brad Pietruszka, fuels program manager for the San Juan National Forest, said multiple options are open for the number of prescribed burns that might go off in any burning season.
If this year’s monsoons are “perfect,” as many as 15,000 acres might undergo treatment from a prescribed burn in the fall burning season. If monsoons fail, like last year, no fall burns may be conducted.
“It’s just too dry,” he said.
Another factor in the number of prescribed burns that can go off is the available personnel, Pietruszka said.
“We need a lot of other places in the West to not have incredibly active fire seasons because the same resources we use to do prescribed fires are the same ones that go to fight a fire,” he said.
It might take up to three years before actual conditions on the ground are at a point where it is safe to implement a planned burn, Pietruszka said.
Ellis said: “I hesitate to say this, but the actual implementation is kind of the easy part. So if you’ve done all your planning correctly, if you’re monitoring the environmental conditions on the ground, and you have the right resources, you can go out there and pull off the burn without a hitch.”
The Pagosa Ranger District follows a programmatic environmental assessment that covers 256,000 acres of ponderosa pine forest.
Another preliminary study before an individual burn plan is written is a complexity analysis, which examines any elements that might be tricky, whether it would be logistics, terrain features, proximity of structures or other unique features that might impact safety and the way the burn should be handled.
A complexity analysis determines if the planned burn will be low, moderate or high in complexity.
Only after all this preliminary work is done does actual work begin on an individual burn plan.
Each burn plan must be analyzed for its impact on cultural resources, wildlife and the hydrology – stream flows or ponds, lakes and washes.
“A burn plan has 21 elements in it,” Ellis said.
Among a burn plan’s elements are detailed studies of the personnel and equipment required, a communication plan, an ignition plan, a holding plan, a contingency plan, a smoke-management and air-quality plan, a monitoring plan and a plan for post-burn activities.
Perhaps the most important element of a burn plan is a public and personnel safety and medical plan.
It is this portion of the burn plan that specifies efforts required to mitigate safety hazards. It must contain plans for emergency medical procedures, emergency evacuation methods and identification of local, county and state agencies, and contacts and liaisons that will be required for a safe burn.
The burn plan also requires a test burn be ignited in a representative area and the results must be documented to verify the prescribed fire behavior characteristics and smoke dispersion meets objectives.
After a “burn boss” completes a burn plan, it is then reviewed by another burn boss, usually someone in a different national forest.
“We don’t want somebody here in our own office reviewing a plan I wrote,” Ellis said. “We want fresh eyes, and if they’ve identified issues, we can make changes.”
After the burn plan has been critiqued, it then is also reviewed by either the district ranger or the forest supervisor.
Only after these reviews will a burn plan be ready for the field.
The 400-acre Brockover Prescribed Fire, completed on May 1, is the latest of a dozen or so prescribed burns conducted since 2000 in the Turkey Springs area, west of Pagosa Lakes.
“We targeted this particular area, specifically because it is west of the highest concentration of homes in Archuleta County,” Ellis said. “With our predominant southwest winds, if we were to have a major fire and there were no treatments, it could potentially impact the homes up in Pagosa Lakes.”
Pietruszka said the role of fire in the ponderosa pine forest ecosystem, which stretches from northern Mexico to Montana, has been heavily studied.
“Before white settlement of the area, the San Juan burned anywhere from six to 25 years, and contrary to things you might read, outside of Flagstaff, or northern Arizona, the fires that moved through here were a mix of intensity,” he said.
Fires ranged from low intensity burns with short flame lengths that “didn’t kill much” to more intense fires that reduced the canopy structure, he said.
“You ended up with a big mix of successional classes of trees, trees at different stages,” Pietruszka said. “You’d have individual stands of old trees real spread out, and then you’d also have a lot of little seedlings coming up where the fire was more intense and fire maybe killed the overstory.”
That natural landscape limited how big fires could grow, he said.
“Odds were pretty good that a new fire, at some point, say in a drought year, was going to run into an old fire from the year before or two years before,” he said. “So you’d get this big patchwork in the landscape of the pine belt.”
When fire suppression began in the 1930s, an unintended consequence was the buildup of hazardous fuels and the growth of trees that lacked a diversity of sizes in the ponderosa forests.
The goal of prescribed fires is to mimic that natural pattern of mostly smaller fires, keeping fuel levels down and reducing the chance of a large catastrophic burn.
“It’s with prescribed fire we try get fire back in these areas that have missed anywhere between six and 20 fire cycles, depending on the site,” he said. “That’s a lot of eggs in one basket to try to undo – missing maybe 20 disturbance events – to make up for that in one.”
Pietruszka said the effort to re-create the natural cycle of fires is why the Forest Service likes to return to a previously burned area every six to 15 years.
Ellis noted the Brockover Prescribed Fire was the second conducted in the area in the past 10 years, which is ideal.
“It’s not one and done. We want to do burns on a rotational basis. It helps to throw back the fuels,” Ellis said.
The first thing Ellis does in planning a prescribed burn is to “spend a fair amount of time walking around the woods.”
“I’m in prospective units, looking for control features,” he said. “If we don’t have to construct features, put in lines, so much the better.”
The Brockover Prescribed Fire used Turkey Springs Road as a fire break on the west, a bicycle trail on the east and a fenceline on the north.
In the end, only the southern perimeter required crews to cut a handline.
“In a prescribed burn, we don’t want to burn everything. What we want is a mosaic,” Ellis said.
Walking through the Brockover burn area a month after the prescribed fire, Ellis pointed out large scorched ponderosas.
Ponderosas, he said, are adapted to fire.
“A ponderosa with 75%, 80% of its needles burned will survive,” he said. “This Gambel oak looks like it’s dead. It’s not; you can’t kill Gambel oak.”
Areas treated by prescribed burns are far better prepared than untreated areas should a lightning strike or a carelessly discarded cigarette start a wildfire.
“It’s a lot easier to deal with a fire with 3-foot high Gambel oak than 12-foot high,” he said.